India’s assistance to its neighbours is necessary to fend off China’s economic colonialism which has already expanded to an ominous extent
More strengthened by a greater public mandate and a bigger parliamentary majority, Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of the second NDA government is going to give more attention to neighbourhood diplomacy. His just concluded visits to the Maldives and Sri Lanka are a depiction of India's neighbourhood diplomacy which aims at checkmating the growing Chinese clout on our neighbours and its increasing footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The Prime Minister's emphasis in both the countries was on defence cooperation and economic assistance. As the PM can now depend more on Amit Shah in matters of domestic politics, he can devote more attention to India's neighbourhood. The challenge is two-fold. The first is to strengthen regional defence against China's expansionist policy. The second is to help our neighbours financially as all of them are now in the debt-trap of China: they find they just can't repay the loans they have taken from China mainly for building infrastructure projects.
For the Maldives, India has extended a line of credit for $1.4 billion This will help the Maldives among other things to battle its huge budget deficit. The Maldives is neck-deep in debt to China. In last October, the Chinese ambassador to the Maldives gave President Ibrahim Solih an "invoice" of $3.2 billion. This means that every citizen of the country owes the Chinese $8000.
Besides, China has already seized about a dozen and a half islands of the Maldives archipelago. Former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, has said that China's influence over the Maldives' economy is aimed at building China's "strategic muscle." He has accused China of "land grabbing" of the islands of the archipelago. "It starts with a real estate project but soon turns into something else", Nasheed had said.
During Modi's visit to Male, the emphasis was given to joint patrolling, aerial surveillance and holding joint exercises. Modi also inaugurated a training centre for the Maldives defence forces, a "Coastal Surveillance Radar System" and a centre for training the Maldives National Defence Force. Besides, a ferry service will be started soon between Kochi in Kerala and the Maldives.
Modi emphasised that India's assistance was not meant to increase the island nation's dependence on India, nor to put the future generations of the Maldivians under a debt burden. This was a subtle message to China. Terrorism and the need to increase vigilance against it was another subject on which both sides agreed to cooperate. The rise of radical Islam has emerged as a threat to the Maldives' internal stability.
From the Maldives, the Prime Minister went on a hectic five hour trip to Colombo where he took part in wide-ranging discussions. He visited the St Anthony's Church which was one of the scenes of this year's Easter Sunday (April 21) massacre by radical Islamists. He met the entire Sri Lankan Cabinet, the chief ministers of all the nine provinces, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and the representatives of Sri Lankan Tamils. As Sri Lanka was recently the target of a major terrorist attack, combatting terrorism naturally came up in a big way in the discussions.
Political equations have recently changed in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa, known for his pronounced pro-China tilt, was defeated by Sirisena in the 2015 elections. But since then they have come close to each other, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's relations with Sirisena have cooled off. For a brief period, Sirisena made Rajapaksa Prime Minister by dismissing Wickremesinghe. But his decision was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional and Wickremesinghe was reinstated. He enjoys a warm relationship with New Delhi. Wickremesinghe tweeted that he wanted India-Sri Lanka cooperation for increasing multilateral investment projects. China has given huge loans to Sri Lanka for building infrastructure facilities. But today it finds itself caught in a debt trap to the Chinese, so much so that it has to take fresh loans from China to repay old debts.
Recent developments indicate Rajapaksa has recovered some of his lost ground and may again bid for power, not directly because he is debarred from running for the presidency again but through his brother Gotabaya, a former Defence Secretary who took a prominent part in crushing the LTTE. India has to keep a close watch on political developments in Sri Lanka and keep channels of communications open with all the major players. It will be unwise for New Delhi to put all its eggs in one basket.
The challenge India faces from China is on two fronts – military and economic. To meet the security threat, India has to increase and deepen its military cooperation with neighbouring countries. But the economic challenge is much bigger. India cannot take the place of China as a donor country to meet the growth requirements of her neighbours. But this is exactly what she has to do checkmate China's policy of economic colonialism which has already succeeded to a great extent. And, India has to do it at a time when her own economy is not in the pink of health. Unemployment is highest in the last 45 years, GDP growth is falling, the industrial production rate is decelerating, and an acute water crisis threatens to be permanent due to climate change.
Still, India has to find the wherewithal to help her neighbours to help herself. This will be a big challenge for the Prime Minister in the field of foreign policy in the next five years.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)